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16 July 2006

Street children are unseen victims of Mumbai terror

medium_10000.7.jpgTHE explosions that ripped through the first-class carriages of seven Mumbai commuter trains last week, killing nearly 200 people, were not meant for 14-year-old Pappu and his friends Malik and Mohammad.

They were aimed at the wealthy, and largely Hindu, diamond dealers and city traders in India’s financial capital who symbolise the country’s growing wealth and closer ties with the West.

Pappu and his friends are among the forgotten victims of last Tuesday’s terrorist attack — the homeless or runaway “railway children” who live on the platforms and have no families to search for them or tell how they died.

They had been playing cards, a group of eight boys, after a hard day’s begging, scavenging and sheltering from the monsoon rains, when the 18.26 western line train pulled into Mahim station’s platform three.

The blast that followed tore the roof off the first-class carriage, shooting shards of glass and steel across the platforms. It killed Malik instantly and severed Mohammad’s leg below the knee, leaving it hanging by the skin.

Pappu was taken to the Sion hospital and treated for cuts, burns and shrapnel wounds. “His skin was black and he had pieces of metal all over him,” said Sulak Sharna, of World Vision India, a charity that cares for Mumbai’s street children.

Despite pleas from the charity that he was too seriously hurt to be discharged, he was sent “home” after his wounds had been cleaned and dressed. He was later found dirty and limping in the Dom Bosco shelter for homeless children. The bandage on his leg was filthy and oozing. He had no shoes.

He said the smoke was so thick after the explosion that he could not see his friends.

“I went to help Mohammad, who was crying out. It was raining and the electric wire fell down on me. The sparks struck me. Pieces of metal were stuck in my feet. I fell unconscious. Malik died on the spot,” he said. “I haven’t seen any of my friends since.”

He now wants to return to his family in Assam, but is afraid to face his dead friend’s parents. “We were neighbours. I’m a Hindu and he was a Muslim. His parents don’t know he’s dead. What will I tell them? Our parents didn’t even know we’d come to Mumbai.”

At his former home on platform four, about 15 boys were bedding down last Thursday. Some had been sniffing glue — many of the boys are addicts. Abdul Malik, 17, from Bihar, confirmed that numerous railway children had been injured. One working at a platform “pani puri” snack stall had lost both his legs below the knee and was now in hospital.

“Some were killed on platform two, 15 died because the roof collapsed. I was sitting on the platform taking drugs just after 6 o’clock. Those on the platform got the worst of it, but I was lucky,” he said.

As Abdul spoke, his friend Mohammed Hussein, another young Muslim who claimed to be 17 but looked much younger, was inhaling a bag of glue.

According to Pappu there had been up to 30 railway children on the platforms on Tuesday night — more than usual because they were sheltering from the monsoon rain.

Had the attack been any later, there would have been around 100 platform-sleepers there, many of whom make their living as “rag-pickers”, sifting through the rubbish left by commuters for materials they can sell for recycling.

Pappu said he was paid 150 rupees (£1.75) a day as a rag-picker at Mahim, and that dozens of boys and homeless young men did similar work at all the stations hit by the bombings. He was sure railway children were among the victims at those stations too, he said.

The children come from broken homes and large, poor families in India’s most desperate states such as Bihar and Assam. They aim for big, prosperous — and to these children, glamorous — cities such as Delhi, Bangalore and especially Mumbai, India’s city of dreams.

But with little money, no family or friends, few get further than the railway station they arrive at, with its ready network of children and the possibility of scratching a living of sorts.

According to Abdul Malik, who left his home in Bihar on India’s eastern flank to find a “better life”, station “coolies”, the red-jacketed porters who hustle for tips along the platforms, were also badly hit by the bombs.

Abdul Malik, Mohammed Hussein, and Pappu are among the many thousands of homeless children who live in and around the stations of India’s sprawling rail network.

In Delhi, 2,000 children are believed to make their living along the platforms. Along with western volunteers, they have formed a charity offering tours of the “other side of the tracks” for 200 rupees. It ploughs the profits into education and training for the children.

They show tourists the “safe” nooks and crannies where they sleep, the rag-picking middle men who buy the discarded rubbish that the children collect, and offer talks by street children on the violence, abuse and camaraderie they say are all part of their railway experience.

Mumbai’s railway children are not so organised. Their suffering has yet to feature on any tourist trail. Their stories have been overlooked since last Tuesday in the broader and better articulated tragedies of those whose friends and families searched the city for them.

One family had searched every mortuary and hospital in the city, and had seen almost every victim without finding their son. They discovered later that he had died in one of the hospitals they had visited.

“If we’d known we could have saved him, we could have taken him to a private hospital or held his hand as he passed away,” one relative said. The city’s hospitals have been posting photographs of the dead to speed identification.

Stars from Bollywood held a candlelit prayer vigil for the victims while police mounted two equally important operations — one to find the culprits, the other to prevent communal riots.

Arup Patnaik, a police commissioner, said his officers were visiting community leaders and patrolling volatile districts. “We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst,” he said.

The search for the culprits has focused on a little-known group, the Students Islamic Movement of India. It began as a Muslim empowerment movement in the 1970s but took a militant turn in the early 1990s and now supports Al-Qaeda.

Its founder, Mohammad A Siddiqi, is a journalism professor in America. Last week he said the group had turned militant after he left it. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would become an extremist fundamentalist group,” he said.

railway children were dodging police patrols, trying to find a spot to sleep, unaware that anyone had struck a blow for them.



THE Mumbai railway bombings were carried out by an Islamic militant group in retaliation for the deaths of more than 1,000 Muslims in riots in the neighbouring Indian state of Gujarat, a leading member claimed this weekend, writes Dean Nelson.

The group, Gujarat Revenge, is an offshoot of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which detectives believe was responsible for the bomb attacks.

A SIMI leader — known as Usman — told The Sunday Times that first-class passengers were targeted because they were mainly wealthy Gujaratis who, he claimed, had financed the state’s Hindu fundamentalist government.

He accused Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, of failing to protect the Muslim minority during riots in 2002.

Usman said that the group would launch more attacks in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, two of the state’s largest cities, and that the bombing campaign would continue until Modi was “sacked or punished”. He did not regret any of the Hindu deaths in the bombings and said Muslims who died had been inevitable casualties in a “war”.

Gujarat Revenge was formed after SIMI was banned as a terrorist group in 2003. Usman, who appeared to be in his forties and has a distinctive grey stubble beard, is a key figure in planning logistics for both SIMI and Gujarat Revenge attacks.

He said he had become involved in SIMI in 1983 when it was working in education. It became more militant because it saw Muslims being discriminated against in India, he said.

“We choose violence because people do not want Muslims to progress. In 1984, during the first communal riots in Mumbai, the police supported the Hindus. If they kill one Muslim, we will kill hundreds of them.”

He said that the group had carried out two earlier bombings in Mumbai in 2003 — an attack on a women’s carriage which killed 11 and injured 65, and the bombing of a bus in which four were killed and 32 injured.

POSTED BY The Sunday Times - World

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